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How Salah Bachir Met Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams

In excerpts from 'First to Leave the Party,' the Toronto entrepreneur and philanthropist writes about three unbelievable celebrity encounters / BY Kim Honey / October 19th, 2023

There’s a tender vulnerability to Salah Bachir, the Toronto entrepreneur, philanthropist and art patron known for his witty repartee, black Hoax Couture wardrobe and the pearls and precious gemstones that drip off his earlobes, neck, wrists and fingers when he commands the room at one of his myriad fundraising events. During a visit to his grand country home and gardens in Paris, Ont., to talk about his celebrity-filled memoir, First to Leave the Party, he tells me how its pages are haunted by the friends, family and lovers he has lost to the civil war in Lebanon, where he was born in the northern village of Kfarhata; to the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s, when there were few funerals for the dead; and to old age and infirmity, in the case of stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Omar Sharif and Eartha Kitt. (You can read the full interview with Bachir here.)


Salah Bachir


Bestselling Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald is narrating the audiobook, partly because Bachir has admired her writing since he read her 1996 bestseller, Fall on Your Knees, and also because MacDonald’s mother was Lebanese, so she can pronounce Arabic words and names perfectly. Bachir couldn’t do it, because, as he told me, “sometimes I cry reading some of them.” 

The world was a very bleak place when Bachir, the former president and co-owner of Famous Players and president of Cineplex Odeon theatre chains, started writing vignettes on social media about the bold-face names he had met over decades working in the video and film industry. It was during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Bachir, 68, was in a Toronto rehab hospital, recovering from a near-fatal bout of sepsis that followed his 2019 kidney transplant. 

“It’s always been that everybody’s [told] me I should write my memoir. Just almost dying, I thought I better do it now,” Bachir says, drolly, over a Middle Eastern lunch catered by Jasmine Kitchen, which is run by the Syrian refugee family he sponsored.

The idea was to share something uplifting and fun, but he soon realized his celebrity encounters went beyond mere gossip, showcasing the humans behind the Hollywood star-making machine. “I admired them. I learned from them. I valued them,” he writes. “But I did not fawn over them or ask what it was like to be ‘them,’ to have worked with other big names, or who they slept with or didn’t.”

The book is told in 54 short chapters, beginning with “Marlon Brando Stops By For a Barbecue,” then moving on to “Wooing Gregory Peck,” “Tallulah Bankhead, Dahling,” “Edward Albee: No Topic Off the Table,” and ending with “k.d. lang Sings at Our Wedding,” about his 2015 nuptials to multidisciplinary artist Jacob Yerex. It is an unchronological collection of delicious set pieces, interwoven with the very personal life and times of Bachir, who describes enduring overt racism in Canada as an Arab, leading a double life as a closeted gay man and hiding his insecurities behind a facade of confidence. “My life is one of light and shadow, of fierce pride mixed with uncertainty, a kaleidoscope of hiding and revealing,” Bachir writes in the prologue. “I wanted to be known, and I wanted not to be known.” 

The one person who understands Bachir, heart and soul, is Yerex, and their love story is reserved for the last chapter, where Bachir recounts calling off his wedding to a Lebanese woman, and Yerex, who has a daughter from a previous hetero marriage, coming out to his parents as their relationship deepened. “It’s as if my entire life’s journey had led me to him,” Bachir writes. “My Jacob. Sometimes, even when he is just in another room, I miss him.” 


Salah at a gala with husband Jacob Yerex in 2019. Photo: GEORGE PIMENTEL


In the following excerpts, Bachir writes about his lifelong fascination with Brando, having brunch with Tennessee Williams and talking about jewels with Elizabeth Taylor, whom he met for the first time in 1983 when she was in Toronto shooting Between Friends with Carol Burnett.


Elizabeth Taylor Tries on My Pearls

Elizabeth was in Toronto to promote White Diamonds when she admired a particular brooch and pearls I was wearing. This led to a discussion of vintage jewelry, something in which we both invested and for which we shared a passion. I had a safe full of jewels: antique clips, pearls, and some diamond and sapphire necklaces I had designed.

“You should come over one day for coffee and try on some jewelry,” I said.

“Why not?” she responded. “How about tomorrow morning?”

I hadn’t expected such an immediate response.

“Um, sure . . .”

First, a word about my pearls.

Back when I co-owned Famous Players Media with Viacom and contributed hugely to their bottom line, their finance people told me I could not talk to the investment community, that they would not take me seriously. Because I wore jewelry. But my pearls are my badge of courage. And everyone can recognize me by my pearls.

So. Elizabeth Taylor.

The next day was a Saturday. That meant I had to get up early and do everything — go to the market, whip up something special, clean the place to within an inch of its life — but I only had time for essentials. Which meant flowers.

Elizabeth took a cab from her hotel to my downtown Toronto condo, where the concierge didn’t recognize her in her white pants and big sunglasses, her hair hidden beneath a scarf. It was just a fun outing for her, as rare as that can be in a star’s life. An escape from being handled all the time. A time to have fun and talk about nothing in particular, and certainly not about what it was like working with and twice marrying Richard Burton.

Elizabeth sat at my dining room table with an espresso while I opened the safe. Once the jewelry came out, there was no more talk of art or philosophy. Jewelry was serious business, and she devoted her full attention to it, trying on piece after piece. I tried on her necklace, too, but I was not going to tell Elizabeth Taylor to hand over her earrings.

When Elizabeth Taylor, pictured in a scene from ‘Ash Wednesday,’ stopped by Bachir’s Toronto condo to check out his jewelry, she tried on his trademark pearls. Photo: Paramount/Getty Images


She had a keen eye. She knew about cut and clarity. She understood the provenance of antique brooches. She often bought such items for her own pleasure — but also as a savvy investment. “Sometimes all you need is to throw a stunning piece of jewelry on top of a plain dress,” she said. “They only notice the jewelry.”

She said she didn’t feel comfortable traveling with her good jewelry, and that sometimes, the pieces she traveled with were fakes made expressly to match the originals. “You can’t really tell,” she insisted. And who would ever think Elizabeth Taylor would wear a copy? However, when it came time to wear a Chopard necklace, “Of course that’s going to be real! If I’m going to wear a Chopard, it’s not going to be fake.” She did not wear her jewelry or clothing as some sort of brand advertising or on loan for an occasion. We girls wear our own jewels, and sometimes we even help design them.

Eggs Benedict with Tennessee Williams

In October 1980, three years before his death at age seventy-one, the stupendous American playwright Tennessee Williams came to Vancouver for a spell. He was hardly at the top of his game while he served as writer-in-residence at the University of British Columbia, mounting a failed production of The Red Devil Battery Sign at the Vancouver Playhouse, but he could be quite charming, as rent boys must have found when he reportedly had them strip to their underwear in his hotel room and read to him from the Bible. I do wonder which passages, but as far as scandal goes, it sounded pretty tame compared to what I recall reading in the Bible.

When a friend heard I was going to be in Vancouver, he suggested I look up his gay cousin, who was involved with the Playhouse. You know how it is sometimes — well-meaning friends set you up with the only other gay person they know. And why not? I took the bait. Innocent enough, right?

On my second outing with the cousin for a perfectly delightful brunch, he brought along none other than the man himself. Needless to say, Tennessee Williams was the best third wheel imaginable.

“I’ll have the eggs Benedict and fruit salad on the side,” said Williams. Not quite up there with “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” but I was impressed enough to order the same, even though I had never tasted eggs Benedict before and wasn’t entirely sure what they were.

The restaurant was one of those places with a commanding view and breakfast menus that were long and laminated. Williams had notoriously fallen prey in his later years to alcoholism, but at brunch that day he was enormously entertaining and told the best stories. In the middle of one, a woman approached our table and asked for an autograph.

Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams in New York in the 1980s. Photo: Getty Images


He fixed her with an imperious glare. “How do you know who I am?” he commanded in his Southern drawl.

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of my favorites,” she burbled, not at all cowed by being in the presence of a literary lion.

“Kind of you to say,” said the literary lion.

“Yeah, a helluva movie!” She did not realize the enormity of her faux pas. “Ever consider writing a sequel?”

Williams signed the laminated menu for her quite cordially, despite how long and unwieldy it was, and signed over a napkin as well before she returned to her table.

“A sequel,” he blasted after she left. “A SEQUEL!”

The more he chewed over the idea, the more impassioned he became.

“Good lord, can you imagine doing that now? Who would be Stella? Bella Abzug would be Stella!” he said with a hearty laugh. “Brando, all three hundred pounds of him, and two hundred and fifteen pounds of Bella!”

Then, recreating Brando’s famous “Stella” line, he brayed: “BELLLL-AAA! Get me a beer!” He followed that with a line that fell somewhere between “I’ll have the eggs Benedict” and “What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof,” but it’s one I’ll always remember: he declared that in a statement for feminism, “Bella will slap Marlon on the cheek and say, ‘Go fucking get it yourself!’”

I refuse to line up for much, but I would have lined up for that one— along with the rent boys reading from the Bible. Double bill, anyone?

Marlon Brando Stops By For a Barbecue

“What can I get you?” my mother asked Marlon Brando. She wasn’t exactly clear on who he was, other than being some kind of actor and a new friend I had brought over for a backyard barbecue.

What could she get him? She would have asked the same of anyone. In our family and in our Lebanese culture, one of the ways we show love is with food. A lot of it. Lots of love, lots of food. It wouldn’t have mattered if my mother had known who Marlon was, because she treated everyone with the same courtesy and hospitality — and anyway, to my mom, her kids were the stars. No one shone brighter. Whether I brought over Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, Ella Fitzgerald, or any of the celebrities I befriended over the years, to her I was always the main attraction. The only time I shared the spotlight was when one of my siblings or their kids were also on hand.

True, my mother didn’t bring out the good china for Brando; but then, she never used her good china with anyone, no matter how exalted. She had it there on display in the dining room buffet, one of those grand wooden pieces of furniture crafted in the old style, but I never saw her use it. She had a set of everyday china, a set of “better” china, and the “good” stuff that never saw the light of day. The home made food was the main attraction, not the plates.

Marlon sat near the picnic table on one of our folding lawn chairs (the tubular metal variety with a fabric-strip seat), the pear and peach trees on one side and a wall of flowers on the other, with vegetables growing to disguise the chain-link fence that separated our house from its neighbor. Our vegetables were heavy on tomatoes, Lebanese cucumber, and kousa — similar to zucchini and also known as Lebanese squash. There was also plenty of marjoram, sumac, and the summer savories one can eat green or add to salads, and when dried go into za’atar, a Lebanese spice blend that is suddenly all the rage everywhere but has been here all along.

Ours was a regular three-bedroom house — with a carport, behind a strip mall, on a dead-end street that connected to another little circle — in a working-class neighborhood in north Toronto called Rexdale. At the end of the street was the Humber River, where my two sisters and two brothers and I played out our Tom Sawyer adventures. There was a cedar hedge alongside the house and a big shed out back where Dad kept his tools.

My father knew Brando from On the Waterfront, but perhaps he was unaware of the stature of the man for whom he was pouring a glass of arak near the flowering fruit trees.

“Did you know that your name is English for the Lebanese name Maroun?” he asked Marlon.

“St. Maroun, yes! I love that,” exclaimed Marlon, to everyone’s amazement. “The patron saint of the Maronite Church.”

It was not the first time Marlon surprised me by coming out with something seemingly obscure, but he was a sponge for information that intrigued him. And virtually everything intrigued him.

“We’re not Maronites, we’re Greek Orthodox,” my father clarified over tabouli and fattoush salads.

“We’re not here to talk religion,” I interceded, heading that off.


Salah Bachir
The photo of Bachir that prompted friends to start calling him a “Brando look-alike.” Photo: Courtesy of Salah Bachir


I don’t think my parents would have acted any differently had they known their guest was one of the most revered actors of all time, a two-time Oscar winner for On the Waterfront and The Godfather — not that I put much stock in awards. Who’s to say who is “the best” of anything? We were all instantly in love with Marlon anyway. He put everyone at ease and tasted everything Mom made, complimenting her lavishly. A couple of times he asked, in French, for the names of certain foods in Arabic.

It seemed that Brando was up for just about any conversation, no topic off limits, but I purposely steered the talk away from his fame and acting career. It’s all on screen anyway, and I figured he’d enjoy a break from the endless questions — what was it like doing this or that or with this one or that one.

I also had no need to ferret out his secrets, sexual or otherwise. In the end, though, he learned all about mine.

It had always been Brando for me. He was one of the most exciting film actors to watch. I had heard Elizabeth Taylor say that everyone who met him, male or female, straight or not, felt the attraction. And in many cases, Marlon was up for it: from Laurence Olivier, Richard Pryor, and James Dean to Marilyn Monroe and Rita Moreno — just a few of the names linked to him over the years. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote that when Brando appeared in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway in December 1947, “it caused such a sensation that he seemed like a tiger on the loose. A sexual terrorist. Brando was the brute who bore the truth.”

At the moment, the brute was in my childhood backyard in Rexdale, slouching and talking horse racing and cards with my dad, eating my mom’s homemade mamoul and fruit jams for dessert, calling them Mr. and Mrs. Bachir. 

All excerpts from First to Leave the Party by Salah Bachir with Jami Bernard. Copyright © 2023 Salah Bachir. Published by McClelland & Stewart®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

This story appears in the October-November 2023 issue of Zoomer magazine, “Absolutely Fabulous,” on p. 74.



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